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April 24, 2009

America's Broadband Future -- Whose On First Base?

America loves professional sports. More precisely, Americans adore our sports superheros. The analogy of sports leadership, heroics, and sports muscle, agility, and skill pervades our popular culture, corporate board rooms, our civic and national leadership. Those of us committed to and passionate about national broadband now have no fewer than three major teams to cheer for who, if they win the title, will bring jubilation and lead a collective renaissance of the nation.

The odds on favorite team for this season is team NTIA. You remember them. Only a year and a half ago (FY08) captain/President Bush proposed cutting their entire payroll/budget by more than 50% from $40m to $19m. No hope that under the former administration that team NTIA was going to lead our nation to national broadband heaven. This rag tag team is back with new ownership and now has a budget ($4.7b) that would make George Steinbrenner jealous. More important, team NTIA has a mission to invest in an 'open' platform and support all the underserved and unserved communities in America. This is the All American dream team.

Just 10 days ago, one of the perennial favorites, the FCC stepped forward under interim management of veteran skipper Michael Copps and asked for public support and input on a plan to deliver a winning formula to lead team FCC to victory no later than a year from now. Americans, never a nation to support the plodders, might show up at FCC hearings with paper bags over their heads in protest. But this is a team of veterans with both legislative, regulatory, and technical expertise. Don't count them out. Once they get moving, they could put together a winning streak that could propel them forward into serious playoff contention.

Team Nerd, better known by its agency calling cards starting with NSF, DOE, and even NIH (not to mention NSA, CIA, NASA and other agencies)have long held that they are the crown jewels of the American broadband dream. After all, they were there at the beginning. They architected, built, and operated much of the infrastructure that grew up on steroids and has become the commodity internet as we know it. Quite proud of that pedigree, Team Nerd is back, with major sponsors in the backbone internet business, linking the build out of a national broadband infrastructure with national competitiveness, scientific discovery and the promise of even shinier jewels to take the spotlight.

It's hard not to invoke that famed 1888 baseball jingle better known as a poem by Ernest Lawrence Thayer. All good sports fans read Casey at the Bat: A Ballad of the Republic Sung in the Year 1888" in school. It is, after all, the quintessential American story about hope, heroes, and hype. Of course, everyone knows how the poem ends. And so as we think about the dreams of the fans of the American Broadband league, it may be trivial and even trite to ask whose on first base. The challenge, from my vantage point, can be reduced to the basic insight that designing, building, operating, and evaluating a national broadband infrastructure is not about superstars or even a superstar team competing with other teams. It's time to re-imagine how we get there (national broadband) from here. The goal of developing a coherent and integrated national broadband policy, which in turn informs programmatic opportunities to innovate, communicate, and transform the lives of Americans from every walk of life, should begin with an acknowledgment that we're in this game together.

The fact that the FCC, NTIA, NSF, DOE and other agencies are not being locked in a room to work on a common game plan with roles and responsibilities gives me pause that perhaps too little has changed in Washington, D.C. Incoming FCC Chairperson, Julius Genachowski and recently appointed Chief Technology Officer, Aneesh Chopra should consider something radical like sketching the future of our nation's broadband efforts on the back of a napkin and then charge well intending acolytes to go forth and get the legislation, regulatory frameworks, and programs developed (in that order or at a minimum in parallel fashion).

I am a huge believer that Universities have a role to play in architecting a future national broadband policy. I also believe we (Universities) have enormously important work and a role to play in the communities within which we work, learn, and play. I tried to say as much in today's Chronicle of Higher Education. The Chronicle, in its article on a submission to the NTIA by a coalition of higher education technology organizations and coalitions, decided to frame the article as a set of binary choices (was this a good or a bad idea/white paper?). I know, respect, and have been mentored by many of the principals of the white paper. They are among the handful of wizards the nation enjoys who helped to build our research and education networks for which we have much to be proud. AND, (not but) one of the challenges we face in higher education is our relevance, credibility, and effectiveness in demonstrating active listening to our community neighbors. If our community neighbors are being asked to identify their priorities and articulate them in the context of a strategic investment for the nation (under the terms of the American Recovery and Investment Act), then the Universities would do well to frame the challenge and offer designing multiple solutions that begins with those communities being highlighted and targeted in this (or any other) legislation. I would contend that if our reputations and credibility are built on our deeds we should be more generous and humble in realizing how, if, or to what extent we can contribute to the goals of the NTIA broadband initiative. As a design challenge, the NTIA program represents a series of really interesting and important constraints around which we should build authentic and genuine collaborations. I think we can improve our strategy for helping getting there.

Finally, I think America's Broadband future is too important to leave to competing federal bureaucracies, vying private sector interests, competing public interest groups, and, yes, to well meaning but tunnel vision higher education technologists. It's time to stop placing bets on which 'Casey' is coming up to the bat to help 'save' the nation with a 9th inning grand slam home run. There's a lot of hard work ahead. The stakes are mightily high. Today we need masterful orchestration and choreography work. The best and the brightest are those committed, dedicated, and proven leaders whose primary commitment, dedication, and proof is in their ability to work together to achieve an imperative every bit as important as, and intimately connected to, our national security, financial recovery program, or strategy for global competitiveness in the rest of the 21st century.

Lev Gonick
Case Western Reserve University
Cleveland, Ohio
April 24, 2009

Posted by lsg8 at April 24, 2009 11:42 AM and tagged

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